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General Semantics:
Sound Thinking for Everyday Life

Chapter One from Sensible Thinking for Turbulent Times (iUniverse, 2006)

by Martin H. LEVINSON

An Overview:

General semantics, a process-oriented, problem-solving system, helps individuals better evaluate and understand the world and therefore make more intelligent decisions. It was originally formulated by Alfred Korzybski, a Polish engineer and intellectual who came to the United States during World War I. Since then many thinkers, educators, therapists, and other professionals have drawn on and contributed to the system.

Korzybski based his system on the ideas and work of thinkers such as Alfred North Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, and Albert Einstein. He wanted to use the scientific method to explore and understand the importance of language as a shaper of perceptions and thoughts. He believed his system would help humanity avoid future conflicts by helping people improve their ability to examine their hidden assumptions and solve problems. With a better understanding of the thinking and evaluating process, he believed individuals would live happier and more productive lives.

The system stresses precision in description, understanding the differences between the general and the specific, becoming aware of the dangers of overgeneralization, and discovering hidden assumptions underlying how we think and act. To achieve more precise use of language, the system uses tools and techniques called extensional devices, which will be presented later in the lessons.

General Semantics: Sound Thinking for Everyday Life

“Sound thinking” is a vague term that can be interpreted in various ways. An operational definition of that term, which will be used in this chapter, is the following: Sound thinking is a method of human cognition that tends to make foresight as accurate as hindsight. It allows individuals to more efficiently and effectively solve problems of everyday living.

How important is sound thinking to the public?  Ken Keyes, Jr., a student of general semantics and an author of several self-help books, conducted a nation-wide survey to find out. It consisted of two questions:1

1.          Which of the following would you most hate to have people say about you?

a.   You do not win friends easily.

b.   You cannot think clearly.

c.   You have trouble influencing people.

d.   One day your pants fell down when your arms were loaded with packages.

5.   Why did you make that choice?

A vast majority of the survey’s respondents, 72.5 percent, thought it most important to be known as a clear thinker. (For what it’s worth, 6.5 percent chose sartorial security as most significant.) The following are some reasons they gave for this choice:

á          Men prefer women who are reasonable in meeting problems of everyday life.

á          Women prefer men who demonstrate excellent thinking ability.

á          Men and women who think clearly can achieve greater popularity. They are looked up to; their ideas are considered “worth listening to”; they are invited to analyze the ideas and plans of other people.

á          The ability to think clearly and maturely is an important step in the avoidance of worry and unhappiness…and the achievement of peace of mind.

Clear thinking (sound thinking) is clearly a useful attribute. In order to become better at it, this chapter offers a variety of general semantics (GS) strategies and techniques. They are presented in the context of overcoming ten blocks to sound thinking.

Ten Blocks to Sound Thinking - with General Semantics "Correctives"

1. Allness Attitudes2

—“If you’ve known one Arab, Jew, Black, Hispanic, etc., you’ve known them all.”

—“I understand that in its entirety.”

—“Let me tell you all about what’s going on in the Middle East.”

No one can know all about anything. This statement may seem obvious, but every day people say or imply that they do know it all. Individuals who speak like this are demonstrating “allness attitudes.” They think they know what it is impossible to know—everything about a particular topic.

Allness attitudes are quite common and relatively easy to spot in others. But detecting them in ourselves is a more difficult task. Tougher still is coming up with ideas to keep us flexible and away from allness thinking. Fortunately, there are GS tools and formulations that can help us to achieve these goals. For example, Alfred Korzybski’s admonition that the map is not the territory (what we say or think about something, “our verbal maps,” does not cover all there is to know about that subject, “the territory”).

Science tells us that we can’t know all about the world or anything in it. Therefore, our “mental maps” are always incomplete. Understanding that it is impossible to discern and describe every aspect of the territory (events in the world) allows us to be more open to acquiring new data and new knowledge on various subjects.

Indexing items (a GS notion that involves examining individual cases within a larger category) is another way to overcome allness attitudes. For instance, John may say, “I hate sports.” But “sports,” in the way John is using it, is a very broad term. If we examine it more closely we see that sport1 (tennis) is not sport2 (bowling), is not sport3 (chess), etc. Has John tried all sports? Probably not. Indexing can help individuals to find differences that may make a difference.

Employing words like “to me,” “I think,” and “it seems,” when making statements, is one more approach for blocking allness tendencies. These expressions make it clear that our observations and opinions have definite limits—e.g., “To me, pizza is the most delicious food.” “I think New York City is the best place to live.” “It seems that it is going to snow today.”

Finally, we can follow Korzybski’s advice to add a silent “etc.” to our thinking to remind us that there is always more that can be learned, more that can be said.

2. "Knee-jerk" Reactions

If someone insults you, do you immediately fire back with a slur or epithet of your own? Have you ever gotten into an argument over some “ism” (e.g., “feminism,” “liberalism,” “capitalism”) based on your uncritical assumptions about that particular word? If you answered yes to either of these questions you are allowing words to use you, rather than choosing to behave and react in a mature manner.

Words are not the things they represent. Being labeled an “idiot” doesn’t make you an idiot. But you act idiotically when you don’t take time to figure out an appropriate response to situations and instead let others push your emotional buttons.

Why do humans act impulsively? We do so because we have been conditioned to respond that way. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we automatically behave in certain ways under certain conditions. Political propaganda, as well as commercial advertising, is premised on the idea that individuals will respond to slogans, names, designs, etc., in the same way that dogs can be induced to respond to bells and buzzers.

But we do not have to unthinkingly react to stimuli. We can learn to delay our reactions long enough to investigate conditions and respond to them in a thoughtful manner. This can have a far more salutary effect in situations than reacting precipitously, as the following story demonstrates.

A hunter lived with an infant in a cabin, guarded by his dog. One day the hunter returned from the fields and saw the cradle overturned and the baby nowhere in sight. The room was a mess. The dog had blood all over his muzzle. The hunter, enraged, shot the dog. He then found the baby, unharmed under the bed, and a dead wolf in the corner.

Many people take for granted the human ability to delay one’s reaction. But this is not true for students of general semantics. They know the capacity to delay reacting, and bring our higher brain functions into play, is a key characteristic that distinguishes our species from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Either-or Thinking

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a careful observer of his culture and its language structure. From his observations he derived what has come to be known as the “laws of thought”—tools of logic that are very much with us today. One of those laws is “the law of the excluded middle”—A thing is either “A” or “not A.”

The law of the excluded middle encourages us to think that every question can be answered in terms of “either-or.” The structure of the English language also pushes us in that direction. With its many polarizing terms (good/bad, hot/cold, tall/short, thin/fat, etc.), English supports reasoning through extremes rather than with gradations.

Either-or thinking keeps us from seeing the great diversity in the world. For example, individuals do not come in two varieties: tall or short. If we lined up everyone in the United States and arranged them according to height, at one end of the line there would be professional basketball players, at the other end, midgets. Between these two groups would be the vast majority of individuals.

Most things we encounter are more accurately mapped by a statistical distribution rather than through either-or terms. That idea can be seen on a bell curve of normal distribution. If you plot examples from everyday life, like days above and below 100 degrees, IQ, height, weight, etc., on a graph, it is the middle range that has the most distribution. Either-or comparisons show up at the two extreme ends of the graph.

To get past either-or thinking, general semantics recommends using a multi-valued approach. This method involves examining more than just two alternatives. For example, rather than narrowing down your options to “I’ll either go out to the movies or stay home and watch TV,” a multi-valued approach allows you to brainstorm additional ideas—attend a play, read a book, go out to dinner, walk around the neighborhood, etc. Having more choices usually offers a better chance at coming up with a good resolution to problems.

Rigid Evaluations

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus asserted over two thousand years ago that one can not step twice in the same river. Science has confirmed this process view of existence, and has demonstrated that everything in the world is constantly changing—sometimes slowly and sometimes very quickly. That includes people.

Individuals change over time as new facts present themselves and new circumstances emerge. Are you the same person today that you were a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago? Do you look exactly identical? Has your behavior stayed the same? It’s comforting to think that the world and the people in it are invariable from day to day. It makes for easy predictability. But life is process, so change must occur.

Dating (a GS tool that involves attaching dates to our evaluations of people, ideas, and things) can help us stay attuned to the fact that we live in a changing world.  For example, Joe (who is working out this month) is not Joe (sans workout, last month), technology (2006) is not technology (1976), cars (of today) are not cars (of yesteryear). Dating shows we live in a “restless universe,” where everything mutates over time.

If life is dynamic, must the positions we take on various issues be set in stone? Is it a weakness to change our minds? Neil Postman, a prominent educator and proponent of general semantics, didn’t think so. Postman (1967) published a book titled Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Postman (1979) published another book, Teaching as a Conversing Activity. In the introduction to that work he wrote, “The Earth has gone around the sun twelve times since the publication of our best known book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. I do not seem to be facing in the same direction as I was in 1967. Frankly, I do not know if I have turned or everything else has. But many of the arguments which then seemed merely opposite now seem acutely apposite…”3

There are times when consistency is a virtue. We want airline pilots to consistently be alert when they are flying us to our destinations; baseball players have to consistently get on base to bat over .300; and consistency is the hallmark of our judicial system—rulings are based on precedent.

But, to quote Emerson, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” It can keep us from taking risks and expanding our knowledge in new areas. Slavishly following customs and rules can hinder us from seeing and making changes that might be beneficial. A hallmark of maturity is to know when to be consistent and when to be flexible.

5. Projection Problems

 “She’s a knockout.” “That painting is not art.” “King Kong was a great movie.” When individuals make statements like these they are telling us precious little about what they are describing. They are saying, instead, something about themselves. They are projecting their ideas of what they consider to be “beautiful,” “art,” and “outstanding cinema.” They are confusing opinions with facts.

To demonstrate awareness that our thoughts or comments are products of our internal condition, rather than reports of external “reality,” general semantics advocates the use of qualifying expressions like “it seems to me,” “as I see it,” “apparently,” “from my point of view,” etc. These phrases signal to others that we are transmitting personal observations, not divine truths.

The word “is” can impede our “projection awareness.” That’s because when we use “is” to link a noun and an adjective modifying that noun, we may unconsciously project. For example, when we say “She is lazy,” or “He is smart,” we are suggesting that “laziness” is found in her or that “smartness” is found in him. That contradicts what is really going on: we are projecting our opinions concerning “laziness” and “smartness” onto another person. Qualifying our responses underscores that reality—e.g., “She seems lazy to me;” “From my point of view, he is smart.”

6. "Useless" and Poorly Structured Questions

Asking “useful” questions is an essential part of the scientific method. Such questions can be answered on the basis of systematic observation—they can be tested. “What biological processes caused my birth?” is an example of a “useful” question. “Why was I born?” is an illustration of a “useless” one. (It is useless because there is no way to ascertain any particular answer as relevant or valid.)

“Useless” questions can upset us emotionally. This is shown in the following story.

Marvin applied to three highly rated colleges that he very much wanted to attend. Their admission committees rejected him. Depressed over the rejections, Marvin asked himself a useless question, “Why am I such a failure?”, to which he responded: “I guess I was born under an unlucky star.” ”God must be punishing me for something that I did.”  “My mother must have walked under a ladder when she was pregnant.” Mulling over these “impossible-to-prove” answers led Marvin to become even more depressed and to not work at applying to colleges that were taking students with his GPA and SAT scores.

Had Marvin asked himself “useful” questions such as ”What colleges would most likely accept me with my school record?” and “Where can I obtain their applications?” he would have increased his chances of getting into college and moving on with his life. Useful questions focus on taking constructive action rather than wallowing in self-pity.

The way questions are phrased sets the terminology and structure of their answers. For example, the question “What is the way to do ‘x’?” may elicit the response “The way to do x is…” (which implies that there are no other ways to do x). And the question “Am I a good person or a bad person?” may produce the reply “Of course, you’re a good person” (which suggests that the question you asked was a reasonable one that could only be answered in two ways).

As children, when the teacher asked us questions in the classroom, many of us were conditioned to search for answers. A better education would have had us first think about the questions.


We live in a process world. But our language does not accurately reflect this fact because it allows us to “split” with words what cannot be split in the world “out there.” For example, we talk about the “mind” and “body” as if they were separate entities. But that’s not correct. Can there be a mind without a body? Lacking a body, there would be no mind. And without the mind, what would the body be? Moreover, the chemical processes of the body affect the mind—that’s why antidepressants work. And the opposite is true. Our mental state can influence our physical condition—worry can aggravate ulcers and other bodily ailments.

General semantics labels our tendency to use words in isolation as elementalism. We practice elementalism when we let the word “flower” make us forget that the “real” flower is an ever-changing process that entails air, light, water, and soil. When we talk about a flower, using words, we should not fool ourselves into thinking we are fully describing a real flower.

Elementalism is involved when we seek the cause of something, unconsciously assuming that there is only one cause. For example, the cause of juvenile delinquency, the cure for cancer, the way to raise children, etc. But most problems in life do not have single antecedents. Causation is typically multi-faceted.

Elementalism is firmly established in our language and when we use words, its effects cannot totally be avoided. But there are GS ideas that can mitigate its power. For example, we can use hyphens to link words that are not, by themselves, adequate descriptions of “reality.” (Einstein, recognizing the “one-ness” of space and time, created the notion of “space-time.” Other non-elementalistic terms include “psycho-biological,” and “neuro-linguistic.”) We can also place quotes around words that involve related ideas—e.g., “thoughts” and “feelings.” (Mental and emotional states do not exist in isolation. They influence each other.) And we can add a silent “etc.” to our thinking—e.g., “mind, etc.,” “thoughts, etc.,” “feelings, etc.” (Adding “etc.” indicates that there is always more that can be learned, more that can be said.)

8. Jumping to Wrong Conclusions

John arrives late to school, a factual event that can be observed, verified, and proven. His teacher makes an inference based on this fact—“I suppose John overslept.” The teacher then makes a judgment, based on his inference—“John thinks he can get with anything.” When the matter is investigated it turns out that John was late to school because he was mugged.

We must make assumptions and inferences. It is not possible to observe, check, and test everything. But to make accurate inferences, rather than those that are false-to-fact, general semantics suggests that we take into consideration the variety of possible causes of an event and the variety of reactions we are capable of. To be more confident of our inferences, GS also counsels that we base them on observations and that they converge—a number of inferences point to the same conclusion.

The English language can lead us to confuse facts with inferences and assumptions. Laura Lee points out, “In English we have no grammatical constructions, verb tenses, or moods to distinguish what we have experienced from what we have assumed. It is easy to say and think we know when we are only guessing; the same words may describe or infer, depending on the context. We learn to perceive and think with this confusion.”4

To avoid fact/inference confusion, Irving J. Lee, the author of Language Habits in Human Affairs and other books on general semantics, proposes the following distinctions:5

Statement of fact

*       Made after observation or experience

*       Is confined to what one observes or experiences

*       Only a limited number can be made

*       Represents a high degree of probability, is close to certainty Statement of inference

*       Made anytime—before, during, or after observation

*       Goes beyond what one observes or experiences

*       Can make an unlimited number in any situation

*       Represents some degree of probability

Relying on Common Sense

Most of us know the expression “When you assume you make an ass out of you and me.” The problem with this cliché is that we must assume. Assumptions drive human behavior. The trick is to be aware of our assumptions and to question, test, and revise them when necessary.

This is what scientists do when they use the scientific method. A scientist will start out with an assumption about something, refine it through questioning into a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, analyze the results, and make revisions if needed. In science, assumptions are open to question. They are not taken for granted.

Taking assumptions for granted is what happens in common sense, an outlook that is certainly quite common but one that does not necessarily make a lot of sense—e.g., common sense can result in opposite platitudes for the same situation:

(a) “He who hesitates is lost.”/“Look before you leap.” (b) “Go with the flow.”/“Swim against the tide.” (c) “A penny saved is a penny earned.”/“Penny wise and pound foolish.”

Unexamined assumptions can be dangerous to your health. This is illustrated in the following story:6

A doctor was awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call from a man for whom he had done some medical work a few years before.

 “Doctor,” said the excited man, “please come over right away. My wife is in great pain and I’m sure it’s her appendix.”

 “Well now,” replied the doctor, “I don’t think that’s it. I’ll drop around the first thing in the morning. Don’t worry. It’s probably just indigestion.”

 “But, doctor, you’ve got to come right away now. I’m positive it’s appendicitis,” protested the alarmed husband.

 “Oh come, Mr. Johnson,” the doctor said somewhat irritably. “I took out your wife’s appendix almost two years ago. You know as well as I do that that couldn’t be it.”

 “That’s true enough,” said the husband. “But I’ve got a different wife.”

Employing a scientific attitude, using “uncommon sense,” can bring our assumptions into awareness and lead us to examine and revise them. GS experts Susan and Bruce Kodish suggest when faced with a difficult problem we use uncommon sense and ask questions such as: What am I assuming about this situation? Can I assume something different? What will happen if I do? Is what I’m assuming here so? How can I test this? What observations can I make that may show that this isn’t so?7

10. Labeling and Category Errors

What’s the difference between a “freedom fighter” and a “terrorist”? Were the victims at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq subjected to “abuse” or “torture”? Are organizations that comment on news reporting “media watchdog groups,” or are they “pressure groups”? Don’t look to the dictionary to answer these questions. Their answers depend on human perception.

General semantics notes that strictly speaking, words don’t “mean;” people do. The physicist P. W. Bridgman put it this way, “Never ask ‘What does word X mean?’ but ask instead, ‘What do I mean when I say word X?’ or ‘What do you mean when you say word X?’”8 Words do not have “one true meaning.” For the 500 most used words in the English language, the Oxford Dictionary lists 14,070 meanings.9

Words mean different things to different people (the field of Contract Law is based on this principle); words mean different things at different times (e.g., In 1896, nine men on the U. S. Supreme Court said that separate but equal facilities for blacks and whites are constitutional. In 1954, nine different men said, in effect, that separate and equal are opposites); words mean different things in different contexts (e.g., He beat the drum with a stick. Beats me. The reporter has the mayor on his beat. He beat Joe at chess).

We use words to categorize and label people and events. But the categories we formulate do not exist “out there,” in the “real world.” They are created in our heads and expressed in language. The following are some GS observations on categories:10

* How we label or categorize a person will depend upon our purpose, our projections, and our evaluations; yet the person does not change just because we change the label or category. (When I taught in the New York City school system in the 1970s, there were students who were labeled “children of retarded mental development.” That term became thought of as pejorative so new nomenclature was devised, “special education students.” If someday that designation becomes problematic, perhaps because it is deemed too broad a descriptor, another tag will emerge to delineate “children who do not seem to learn what educators think they should.”)

* Things are not the same because they carry the same label—e.g., Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, Jackson Pollack, and Andy Warhol may all be considered “artists.”

* Each classification tells us something about the way in which an object is considered (by someone) to be similar to certain other objects; each tells us something about the ways in which it is considered different from certain other objects. (Fuel economy guidelines currently set by the federal government classify SUVs as “light trucks,” not “passenger cars.” Because of this classification, current federal regulations allow SUVs to have far worse fuel economy than other vehicles. If Ralph Nader were president, I suspect SUVs would be classified differently.)

Categorizing and labeling people is quite common on talk radio. (“You believe that because you’re a liberal!” “That’s what I thought a conservative would say!” “What do you expect from a reactionary!”) Such classifying does not provide enlightenment on political matters. Rather, it exemplifies a malady that is rampant today in American politics, “hardening of the categories.” This condition can be successfully treated with the ideas and formulations of general semantics.11 But for that to happen, individuals need to apply the cure.

1. Kenneth S. Keyes, Jr., How to Develop Your Thinking Ability (New York: McGraw Hill, 1950), iv, v.
2. The term “allness attitudes” comes from Robert R. Potter, Making Sense: Exploring Semantics and Critical Thinking (New York: Globe, 1974).
3. Neil Postman, Teaching as a Conserving Activity (New York: Delacorte, 1979), 2.
4. Kenneth G. Johnson, General Semantics: An Outline Survey, Third Revised Edition (Fort Worth, TX: Institute of General Semantics, 2004), 12.
5. Ibid., 13.
6. Keyes, How to Develop Your Thinking Ability, 111, 112.
7. Susan Presby Kodish and Bruce I. Kodish, Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics, Revised Second Edition (Pasadena, CA: Extensional Publishing, 2001), 40.
8. Johnson, General Semantics: An Outline Survey, 21.
9. Ibid., 21.
10. Ibid., 9.
11. See Irving J. Lee, Language Habits in Human Affairs, Second Edition (Concord, CA: International Society for General Semantics, 1994), and S. I. Hayakawa and Alan R. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action, Fifth Edition (New York: Harcourt Harvest, 1990).


- Hayakawa, S. I. and Alan R. Hayakawa. Language in Thought and Action, Fifth Edition.
- New York: Harcourt Harvest, 1990.
- Johnson, Kenneth G. General Semantics: An Outline Survey, Third Revised Edition.
- Fort Worth, TX: Institute of General Semantics, 2004.
- Johnson, Wendell. People in Quandaries: The Semantics of Personal Adjustment.
- Concord, CA: International Society for General Semantics, 2002.
- Keyes, Kenneth S., Jr. How to Develop Your Thinking Ability. New York: McGraw Hill, 1950.
- Kodish, Susan Presby and Bruce I. Kodish. Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics, Revised Second Edition. Pasadena, CA: Extensional Publishing, 2001.
- Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity, Fifth Edition. Englewood, NJ: Institute of General Semantics, 1994.
- Lee, Irving J. Language Habits in Human Affairs, Second Edition. Concord, CA:
- International Society for General Semantics, 1994.
- Postman, Neil. Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk. New York: Delacorte, 1976.
- Postman, Neil. Teaching as a Conserving Activity. New York: Delacorte, 1979.
- Potter, Robert R. Making Sense: Exploring Semantics and Critical Thinking. New York: Globe, 1974.

- About Martin H. LEVINSON

- Ten Ways to Prevent International Conflicts
Chapter 11 in Sensible Thinking for Turbulent Times

Fall 2006
Issue# 19
Poetry Writing Event
April 2004
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